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Pence’s claim that ‘religion in America isn’t receding. It’s just the opposite’

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“The percentage of Americans who live out their religion on a weekly basis — praying, going to church, reading and believing in the Bible — has remained remarkably consistent over the decades, even as the population of the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. I mean, think about it, today, relative to the population, four times as many Americans go to church on a regular basis than at the time of our nation’s founding. Religion in America isn’t receding. It’s just the opposite. Faith is gaining new life across America every day.”
— Vice President Pence, remarks at Hillsdale College commencement ceremony, May 12, 2018

We spotted these remarks when the vice president, who is deeply religious, tweeted them out after giving a speech at a conservative Christian college in Michigan. There was a furious backlash by religious researcher Joshua Grubbs that in reality many studies showed the opposite of what Pence claimed — that religion is declining in the United States.

But the vice president’s remarks were so specific that they must have been based on something. So we decided to research the matter.

The Facts

We traced Pence’s two key points — about the percentage of Americans “who live out their religion” and the fourfold gain in religious Americans since 1776 — to a 2018 article that appeared in the Federalist. The Federalist article, headlined “New Harvard Research Says U.S. Christianity Is not Shrinking, But Growing Stronger,” responded to what it called “an exceedingly silly article in The Atlantic on Vice President Pence.”

The Federalist article referred to a 2017 study, published in Sociological Science, by Landon Schnabel at Indiana University at Bloomington and Sean Bock of Harvard University. The Federalist also mentioned research on the growth of religion since the American Revolution, principally the work of Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University and Rodney Stark of Baylor University.

The vice president’s office acknowledged the role of the Federalist article and also sent excerpts from the Schnabel-Bock study that it said supported Pence’s point:

“Looking first at strength of religious affiliation over time in Figure 1, we see the known pattern of the rapid rise of the unaffiliated, who have more than doubled as a percentage of the total population from 1989 to 2016. But we also find a patently persistent level of strong affiliation from 1989 to 2016. There is some year-to-year fluctuation but a very stable trend line.”

This is the figure that is referenced.

You can see that while greater percentage of Americans have no ties to religion, there is a persistent percentage of Americans with a strong affiliation. Other charts show a similar trend. Whereas the percentage who never attend religious services is climbing and the percentage who sometimes attend is falling, the percentage who attend multiple times a week has remained steady.

But Schnabel says that Pence missed the key point about his study.

Pence’s language is “imprecise because it chooses one thing to highlight while leaving out an equally important part of the story of American religious change: Although intense religion persists, moderate religion is declining quickly,” Schnabel told The Fact Checker. “It may in fact be because of the intensity of American religion, and the perceived partisan polarization of American religion, that moderately religious people are leaving it behind.”

In other words, the study suggests that the conservative Christianity celebrated by Pence appears to be turning off other Americans with more moderate views on religion.

Schnabel added that one aspect of Pence’s remarks was “wrong by more than omission: Weekly attendance is declining. It’s only more-than-weekly attendance that persists.” Once-a-week attendance has dropped from 28.5 percent in 1972 to 17.5 percent in 2014, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Schnabel also said his research does not support Pence’s bottom-line conclusion — that “religion in America isn’t receding.”

“Our data do not support the conclusion that religion is on the rise in the United States,” Schnabel said. “Some of the coverage of our paper made that argument, including the Federalist coverage, but our study simply shows that intense religion is persistent even as moderate religion declines. Subsequently, of those who remain religious, a higher proportion are intensely religious.”

He likened it to a “container getting smaller, but more concentrated,” such as espresso vs. coffee.

Interestingly, Schnabel’s research shows that the intensity of religion is stronger in the United States, by far, than in other countries. Here are some figures on the percentage of people in various countries who pray multiple times a day:

“To be clear, Americans as a whole are not becoming more involved in religion, and average religion is declining,” Schnabel said.

A variety of other studies support this point. Here’s a sampling:

Pew Research Center, 2015: U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious. “An extensive new survey of more than 35,000 U.S. adults finds that the percentages who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years.”

Jean M. Twenge, principal author, 2016: Declines in American Adults’ Religious Participation and Beliefs, 1972-2014. “Markedly fewer Americans participated in religious activities or embraced religious beliefs, with especially striking declines between 2006 and 2014 and among 18- to 29-year-olds in data from the nationally representative General Social Survey.”

Jean M. Twenge, principal author, 2015: Generational and Time Period Differences in American Adolescents’ Religious Orientation, 1966-2014. “In four large, nationally representative surveys (N = 11.2 million), American adolescents and emerging adults in the 2010s (Millennials) were significantly less religious than previous generations (Boomers, Generation X) at the same age.”

As for Pence’s claim that “four times as many Americans go to church on a regular basis than at the time of our nation’s founding,” that was derived from research by Finke and Starke for their book, “The Churching of America.” We have reproduced a chart from the 2005 version of the book below. Their numbers for 1776, based on the fact the Colonial churches didn’t have the capacity to hold a high percent of the population on any given Sunday, are lower than some other researchers. But there is little dispute among researchers that there was rapid growth in the proportion of people who were listed as members in churches in the 19th century and early 20th century.

“Regarding recent church attendance, there has been a decline in the last 50 years,” Finke told The Fact Checker. “Much of this resulted from the sharp drop in attendance for Catholics after Vatican II, but attendance has dropped for others as well.”

Pence’s office initially said it wanted to provide a comment but then decided to take a pass.

The Pinocchio Test

Pence has latched onto one specific study to make the claim that the percentage of truly religious in the United States have remained consistent in recent decades and that “faith is gaining new life across America.” But that study actually undermines his point, as it demonstrated that except for a core group, religion is fading away for other Americans. Other studies back up those trends. Pence earns Two Pinocchios for his cherry-picking. He’s also simply wrong to claim that weekly attendance has been consistent; it’s been dropping for years.

Two Pinocchios

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Two Pinocchios
“The percentage of Americans who live out their religion on a weekly basis — praying, going to church, reading and believing in the Bible — has remained remarkably consistent over the decades, even as the population of the United States has grown by leaps and bounds."
in a commencement speech to Hillsdale College, Michigan
Saturday, May 12, 2018